The oddities of academic regalia

Commencement is now over two weeks in the past, but there’s one little niggling issue that I just can’t get over. I’m talking about academic regalia: you know, the silly outfits that professors and graduated students wear. The custom dates back to the early middle ages (we’re talking 1200s here), when academic regalia wasn’t just worn on special occasions, it was worn all the time. Imagine that, students and professors going around all day wearing the dress that we nowadays consider rather preposterous. We only wear the regalia these days at a single special occasion, commencement, but it’s still kind of amazing that the tradition has persisted for over eight centuries in a mostly unchanged form.

It was really funny seeing my professors wearing full-on academic regalia. I’d only ever seen them wearing business casual (or just plain casual) while teaching classes, but commencement is that one time of year they have to go into the back of their closet and dig out the good ol’ academic regalia they were required to purchase when they received their doctorate, however many years ago that was. Some of the older professors came out wearing academic regalia that was three or four decades old. Yet the professors didn’t really look goofy or uncomfortable in the elaborate robes. They looked proud. They worked their ass off for many years to earn their doctorate degrees, and by God, they were going to wear the robes that came with them.

It was a mixed commencement, with undergrads, masters, and doctoral candidates all graduating in the same ceremonies. Looking at the computer science doctorates around me during the commencement ceremony, I felt very envious. I want an advanced degree. And despite how silly the robes are in comparison to modern attire, they come with the territory of earning a doctoral degree, so my desire transfers over into wanting to wear those robes as well.

I made a comment to one of my professors that he should show up to the first day of class next semester wearing full academic regalia, just to throw off the students. I would love to see those reactions. After all, professors used to wear these robes all the time, so why not try to bring that tradition back?

4 Responses to “The oddities of academic regalia”

  1. Darmok Says:

    I know exactly what you’re talking about; I remember being envious of those “fancy” robes…then, four years later, when I graduated from medical school, I was quite proud of the upgraded robes I got to wear—hexagonal mortarboard, robes with greenbars, and such…it was also a shock to realize I had a more advanced degree than many of my former professors/teachers..

  2. Mugz Says:

    I found it rather funny to stumble upon your article. My history professor wears the full academic regalia to everyone of his classes. At first I found it rather funny and, well, weird. Then I put a bit of thought into the work that he did to obtain the right to wear that robe and can perfectly understand why he would do it. Whether he’s a traditionalist or simply is proud of his work and accomplishments, he has earned the right to wear that robe to wherever he damn well pleases, Lol. Anyway, back to my point, I whole heartedly agree with your statement of the ‘robe envy,’ if you will. I’m curretly taking my undergraduate degree, working to ward my PhD., and cannot wait to have the privelage of wearing one of these robes, despite how silly I may or may not look, lol.

  3. Hard to believe it’s been a year | Cyde Weys Musings Says:

    […] I think I would like to go back to school. There’s something about being a professor that really appeals to me. I think I was one of the few students in my classes who really envied our professors. And I know I […]

  4. TJN Says:

    I have a Masters and I teach part time at a university in New England. I think that the tradition of academic regalia is a rich symbol of Western history and it’s a shame that it’s only worn during Commencement in the States. It has crossed my mind to wear the regalia during the first class but I doubt that other instructors would support it or approve of it. My regalia hangs in my spare room’s closet and I seldom attend Commencement at all. I would like to wear it more, but it’s just not accepted here.

    I love the European traditions though.